The Dark Ambitions of Karina Taira

The Dark Ambitions of Karina Taira - 
picture magazine : July/August 2004

Karina Taira is caught in a vicious cycle. Either she is in the studio shooting or at the lab reprinting her books. And as soon as her books are up-to-date, she has produced new work and it's back to the lab again. She could just delegate the upkeep of her portfolios to her agent, but then that wouldn't be very Karina Taira. "I print at home and also at the lab where I stand over my printer until closing time to make sure he gets it just right. I once asked my retoucher if he sees other people working as hard as me and he said, 'No. You're definitely a workaholic. You're totally obsessed.'" Call it what you will but there is no denying Karina Taira is an ambitious lady when it comes to her photography. Or that her ambitions are paying off.

The Art of Coming Undone

Since graduating from the Pasadena the Art Center College of Design in 1994, Taira's work has appeared in W Magazine, French Elle, Big, Rouge, XS, Vellum, Italian Amica, and i-D. She has also photographed ad campaigns for Givenchy, Guerlain, L'Oreal, Christian Dior, Diesel perfume, Absolut Vodka, and Max Factor among others. As a commercial director, she has worked for clients ranging from Alfa Romeo cars to Covergirl Mascara.

Taira seems to have attained a considerable amount of success in a short time. But she did get an early start. "I began taking pictures when I was five. By the time I was six, I would have my friends stand on the tops of cars and shoot them from below to make it look like they were flying. Around age eight or nine my girlfriends and I would put together fashion shoots. If they weren't around I would get out the makeup and dress my brother up like a girl. It was never even a question of what I wanted to be," she recalls. "I was just taking pictures."

Whether it's a fashion spread for i-D magazine or an independent film, the center of most any Karina Taira creation is a confident, complicated woman. If not a touch tormented. "I like strong women. I don't like passive women," Taira says admitting that her work errs on the dark side. For one of her first bookings with French Elle, Taira remembers being asked to shoot a springtime story with a happy girl carrying a fistful of flowers. Her interpretation was a disheveled model crumpled on the ground and laughing insanely while beheading her bouquet with a pair of sharp shears. "I wanted to break the standard rules of how pretty is portrayed in commercial magazines. I thought, 'How can I make a crazy, pretty girl?' I like to push my girls into characters that make the story about more than just the clothes. I'm very inspired by David Lynch characters - beautiful women with a dark side."

Taira says her inspirations also stem from her own experiences. And from having a really horrifying imagination. "I have a very dark way that scares me to a point. I experienced a lot of violence when I lived in Los Angeles from 1990-1994. I almost got killed several times. I was put up at gunpoint many times and then there were the riots and the earthquakes and my college initiation time. All these experiences provoke my imagination. I have a sort of horror movie point of view when I was down a street. The garbage bag becomes a dead person or I turn the corner and imagine I see a body cut up in the street. I have thought of my tongue being cut off. I'm always imagining the worst. It's a part of my every day."

But there is a lighter side to Taira. In response to feeling there isn't enough emotion in today's fashion images, she has recently begun to explore. "Everyone is always scowling with tough faces. I've been able to find more irony and humor in my work. I feel I can play with more emotion now than ever before. And I like to change directions. After a while I get bored doing the same thing. But I have to watch it because I change a bit too quickly, then people can't keep up."

Family Ties

The thirty-one year old Japanese American was born in San Francisco, California. Her father is a venture capitalist and her mother is an artist specializing in nineteenth century porcelain dolls. Though Taira grew up an American girl, she is close to her Japanese roots. Her mother is from a town called Otaru, on the northern island of Hokkaido which is close to Russia, and her father is from Yoron Shima in southern Japan. "It's tropical and lush and the sand if very famous because when you look at it closely, the individual grains are all the shape of miniature stars. They speak their own language, so I can't communicate with some of my relatives from there."

Since family is of great importance to Taira, the is a big deal. She attributes much of her success to their encouragement and support. "I never imagined I could make a career out of taking pictures. When I was a kid, I would tell people I wanted to be a diplomat or an ambassador to justify wanting to travel the world as a photographer." Her mother encouraged her to do what she loved and assured Taira that taking pictures was reason enough.

By age fifteen tiara was working in a photo lab. Before long she was photographing fine art projects while pursuing her formal education abroad at TASIS (The American School in Switzerland) in Paris and Surrey England, the Stanford University in 1989. After her first year at Art Center, Taira took time off to work in Japan. A year later she returned to Art Center with a full portfolio and, in addition to her heavy school workload, began traveling frequently to LA for shoots.

"I was super driven at Art Center. I was obsessed," she recalls. "In fashion, I think you have to move quickly. I knew the moment I got out that my work had to be up to the moment and I wanted to get a head start."

Not much has changed about Taira since then. "Sometimes I feel I'm working so hard and wonder if it's this hard for everybody. I don't do much in my spare time. Though I do work out a little. But even that I do on a treadmill at home because I can't lose one minute in front of my computer. Not even the time it takes to get to and from the gym."

Today Taira is more driven and self-determined than ever. In recent years, she has added "director" to her resume and says her commercial career has been quite an eclectic mix. Her most recent commercials include two for Alfa Romeo and two for America Online. She also just completed a commercial for Covergirl with actress Tasha Tillberg and one for L'Oreal with model Latitia Casta and model/actress Andie McDowell, as well as a film launch for Cerrutti Si perfume for men. 

"For me, my photography and film are on in the same. Both are a result of what I love and my sensibilities. And both crafts help the other in some way. My photography keeps me spontaneous and evolving because I'm shooting something different every week. Film gives me freedom - I don't have a client standing behind me so I can get away with more," she says. "When the camera is moving I see so many things. It's like taking a million pictures."

Like many fashion photographers, Taira has joined the digital age. She says she's hooked on its immediacy and fast turn around time. "I'm so much less stressed. It has changed my work tremendously." Taira still uses her favorite RZ 6X7 and Mamiya lenses. And she appreciates having a computer at her side with an image that is close to the final print. "Much closer than that funky green Polaroid. I had to sit and wait on for a minute and a half." Taira's lighting is still all in-camera, an aspect of her photography that she takes very personally. Many photographers rely on their assistants for lighting, but Taira falls into the camp of those who know exactly what they want and how to get it. "I will never relinquish my lighting. The light is the signature of the photograph. In a way it is very primal and intuitive for me. Even when I try to do what's 'modern' by other standards, I can't because it's not contemporary to what I feel."

Did you say moo?

Taira spends a lot of time in Paris where she owns an apartment on the Isle Saint Louis. But she prefers being at home in New York where she is in the process of making big moves, both business and personal. "I'm selling my Soho loft and looking for a larger space. I've also just changed agents in New York and I'm so happy.

Saturday at midnight is the first chance Taira has to sit down and talk for this interview. When I ask her what she sees herself doing in the next ten years, of course Taira has ambitious plans. But it's good to hear they include taking a little more time to relax. "I hope to be in New York more with a part time home in Italy. Maybe Tuscany. Hopefully by then my Italian will be fluent. And I would like to be directing feature films and doing a commercial here and there, working on art books and exhibitions and campaigns with a little magazine work in between. I just want to be creative and also have time to enjoy life. And I want to worry less about my career and just go with what comes my way."